We should admire the Gardiner Expressway, not tear it down

We should admire the Gardiner Expressway, not tear it down

(Image: The City of Toronto/Flickr)

First, a confession: I love the Gardiner Expressway, not for its utility but for its aesthetic beauty. I kid you not. I am enamoured of the Gardiner not in the way a driver loves a road, but in a broader sense, in the manner that an infrastructure geek becomes enthralled with the man-made structures and physical experience of the city. The Gardiner is awesome.

I knew about the Gardiner before I ever lived in Toronto—not merely its existence but also its meaning, because as a frequent visitor my friends forcibly schooled me in Toronto’s civic obsessions. I learned early on that the Gardiner was a blight, a physical and psychological barrier that cut residents off not merely from the lakefront but from the notion of Toronto as a city on water, a city with an endless horizon. That narrative turned out to be much easier to swallow when I didn’t live in Toronto. Once I moved here, I discovered that the Gardiner, though admittedly crumbling, remains a feat of engineering. It also provides a stunning elevated view of downtown and Lake Ontario, one I never tire of. (Ironically, in my earliest trips from Montreal to visit friends, it was driving the Gardiner that reminded me Toronto had a waterfront.)

But you don’t truly experience the structure while riding atop it; you have to go beneath, especially in the east end where the expressway abuts the Keating Channel. That’s where its perfect rectangular concrete struts, elegantly spaced, mark time like music along Lake Shore Boulevard. As you make your way east the columns vault the roadbed higher, letting in sunlight. Driving westward the experience is reversed: as the supports become ever shorter, bearing down upon your head, it’s like a warp tunnel into the city core. After a day of biking on the waterfront, the act of passing beneath the Gardiner back into downtown at sunset feels like crossing the threshold between Toronto at its daytime and nighttime best. The Gardiner actually fits nicely into the city, and the weave only gets tighter with time: where once there was a no-man’s-land of vacant lots, parking garages and driving ranges adjacent to the expressway, now there are condo towers full of residents.

You might want to make a point of experiencing the Gardiner soon, though, because it could be headed for landfill. Public consultations are now underway on the future of the elevated Gardiner from Jarvis Street to the Don Valley Parkway. The options under consideration are, one, to tear it down entirely and replace it with an eight-lane Lake Shore Boulevard and a new, smaller ramp to the DVP (the “remove” option), or, two, to tear down only the elevated section east of the DVP, keep the vaulting exit ramps intact, rebuild the elevated roadbed, and complement it with a six-lane Lake Shore Boulevard (the “hybrid” option). City council is expected to choose one or the other in June.

Over time, I’ve come to believe that a teardown would be a surrender to this city’s inferiority complex. The Gardiner is not what holds Toronto back from being a great city, and if the main reason to tear down any part of it is essentially for therapy, then Toronto needs to get its collective head out of its ass and go for a walk beneath the bloody thing—because it’s just not that bad. Admittedly it’s not the kind of place you can hang out with coffee. It’s a travel corridor, noisy and bustling, but as travel corridors go it has unique appeal.

But this decision will not rest upon aesthetic considerations. The advantages and disadvantages of each alternative are fairly straightforward. The remove option would run the city about $470 million, including long-term operating costs, open up an additional 12 acres of developable land, and improve the pedestrian experience—but would produce four years’ worth of construction delays and increase commute times significantly. (The projections show that, by 2031, the remove option would add between three and five minutes to baseline commute times into downtown from areas across the city.) The hybrid option would result in 18 months’ worth of construction delays and keep commute times mostly in check, but it would require a lot more money—at least $400 million more, including operating costs. The options present a prickly political problem for mayor John Tory and all of council’s right, who generally tend to favour both cars and parsimony. In this case they can’t have both. If they want to be cheap, they’ll have to make life even more miserable for drivers.

This will be a crucial dilemma for the city, since it represents a clash of civic obsessions: the hoary future-of-the-Gardiner debate is colliding head-on with the more recent what-to-do-about-gridlock debate. I’d argue the new obsession is infinitely more important than the old one: in the place of aspirational hand-wringing we now have genuine frustration with the lived experience of the city, which is the kind of problem city hall can and should act upon. The city’s population continues to grow, commute times are through the roof, and in the long run they’re unlikely to improve. The battle is really about keeping their growth in check. And it’s not merely about commutes into downtown: it’s also about commutes out of the core by downtown dwellers, and the general movement of goods and people throughout the region.

That’s the main advantage of the hybrid option: travel in the city would function better. Some might fret over creating new problems with induced demand, but if we’re going to open up the Gardiner’s surrounding lands for development then real, justifiable increases in demand should perhaps be the greater concern. Yes the cost to taxpayers is higher, but improvements to transportation infrastructure, whether roads or transit, are always done on the basis of imperfect information, and always at great expense. Meanwhile, some of the key advantages of the remove option—most notably its pedestrian improvements—are overstated. If there are buildings and destinations on either side of the Gardiner that pedestrians are eager to reach, they’ll happily traverse the chasm; they may even enjoy the experience like I do.

The hidden costs of the remove option are to be found in the added frustration of travel. If the Gardiner is torn down Toronto could congratulate itself for being a progressive city, but then end up tearing its hair out in frustration, for generations to come, over its inability to get around. Think of all the downtown development in the last 15 years—the condos, the office towers, all the intensified densities of people and travel—and try to imagine how much worse downtown gridlock would be if we had dismantled the Gardiner back in 2001. In retrospect, it’s possible that the act of tearing down the expressway would have been a hindrance to development. (At the very least, the lesson of the condo boom is that the Gardiner is no barrier to development.) Toronto needs to be able to keep people moving more than it needs to pat itself on the back.